The year’s 10 most incredible aerospace inventions
Drone swarms, a flying luxury car, and a rocket to the moon.
This article is a segment of 2017’s Best of What’s New list. For the complete tabulation of the year’s most transformative products and discoveries, head right this way.
Boeing’s Starliner Space Suit
Lightweight boots with sneaker-like soles (designed by Reebok) plus knitted nylon-mesh joints let astronauts in the Starliner easily maneuver and stretch to reach distant control switches. A soft hood and zippers that loosen the torso fabric when standing, or tuck it away when sitting, add comfort. And conductive leather on the gloves allows deep-space snapchats and touchscreen interaction.
Storms develop fast and every minute can matter, so the GOES-16 satellite scans high-risk areas every 30 seconds. Five times speedier than prior sats, it gathers lightning-flash data and other information that forecasters haven’t had before.
Like a militarized fleet of ducklings, Mako drones fall into formation behind their leader. These 20-foot-long combat craft track and mirror a manned fighter jet’s movements. In battle, the mini flyers are expendable companions (armed with bombs and missiles) and can release even smaller versions Russian-nesting-doll-style to overwhelm enemies’ targeting defense systems.
Cirrus Aircraft’s Vision Jet
A single, seamless carbon-fiber frame makes the $2 million Cirrus Vision Jet sturdy enough to sport a panoramic 180-degree windshield. From their spots behind the cockpit, up to five passengers can enjoy almost unimpeded views at 28,000 feet from their luxury-car-like seats. The 30.7-foot plane’s single top-mounted engine won’t bother them either; its placement away from the cabin in the middle of the V-shaped tail, separate from the spin-resistant wings, reduces internal noise. In case of emergency, a parachute stashed in the nose can float everyone down to safety. Yes, it has cup holders.
DARPA’s Fast Lightweight Autonomy program
Drones don’t see objects; they see pixels. The Fast Lightweight Autonomy program teaches them to recognize doors as openings or trees as obstacles so they can navigate without humans or GPS. The system retrofits crafts with cameras and sensors, which guide them at up to 40 miles per hour through dense forests or warehouses. Without ground-to-drone contact, the bad guys will have trouble hijacking ’em.
Over-the-pole plane tracker
As long as planes have existed, they’ve been virtually unaccounted for when they fly more than 200 miles offshore. Air-traffic controllers track planes via ground-based receivers, called ADS-Bs, that pick up signals from transponders inside aircraft. By launching those receivers skyward on 81 satellites, 40 of which went up this year, Aireon will deliver the first unimpeded view of crafts flying over seas and poles.
A steerable balloon
Balloons’ buoyancy makes studying Earth from the edge of space simple. The trouble is, they float away. World View’s solar-powered Stratollite has a dual-balloon system that takes advantage of air currents to stay put. It’ll dip down into one gust for a few miles, then rise into an opposing breeze to move back. Up to 220 pounds of weather sensors and radio transmitters can hitch a ride—no pricey rocket fuel required.
A gentle cargo landing
Pods that ferry loads from the ISS today splash down in the ocean, where they float and wait for retrieval. The Dream Chaser will deliver cargo autonomously, straight to commercial strips. The smooth lander pulls 1.5 G’s versus the standard 4-plus, so sensitive experiments will arrive intact. At liftoff, the ship’s wings fold inward, allowing its 30-foot-long body to tuck inside the nose cone of a NASA Atlas V rocket.
The few carbon-rich asteroids circling our sun might hold the precursors to life on Earth, little changed over the millenniums. That’s why the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft blasted toward them late last year. The 20-foot-long explorer has spent the intervening time positioning itself for a gravity-assisted slingshot around our pale blue dot. Next year, it will sidle up to the asteroid Bennu and extend its arm to collect samples.
Grand Award Winner: SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy
With 28 engines firing together in a coordinated, cacophonous symphony of rocket fuel, the Falcon Heavy lifts off with 5 million pounds of force—more than any ship since the retired ’70s-era Saturn V—and twice the payload weight of any other modern spacecraft. Those thrusters equate to three space-cargo-hauling Falcon 9 rockets and will tote tens of thousands of pounds of satellites, a solar sailing spacecraft, and eventually two lunar tourists. The side boosters burn first and land back on Earth, while the center engine makes the final push out of the atmosphere. The more hardware SpaceX can recover, including that last stage, the cheaper (and cheaper) the flights become. Success in these early missions will prove that this is the ship with the horsepower, reliability, and price point to shuttle humans to Mars.
Best of What’s New was originally published in the November/December 2017 issue of Popular Science.